A man who was convicted of second-degree murder for his role in the brutal beating and strangulation death of Newark transgender teenager Gwen Araujo 14 years ago was granted parole by a state Board of Parole Hearings panel on Friday.
However, the ruling by a two-member state Board of Parole Hearings panel on Wednesday to grant parole to Jose Merel, who's now 36, is only the beginning of a five-month process to determine whether he will be allowed to go free after 14 years in custody, according to Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge.
The state Board of Parole Hearings' legal staff now has four months to review the ruling to see if it's consistent with the evidence that was presented at Merel's hearing at the Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, said Klinge, who participated in the hearing.
If the legal staff approves Merel's appeal, Gov. Jerry Brown will have a month to approve the decision, modify it, ask for all 12 members of the panel to review it or simply let it stand.
Merel was one of four men who were convicted for their roles in the death of Araujo, 17, at Merel's house in Newark in the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2002. The incident sparked outrage among the transgender community nationwide.
Michael Magidson, who's also 36 now, was also convicted of second-degree murder. Merel and Magidson were both sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison.
Jason Cazares was prosecuted along with Merel and Magidson at two highly-publicized trials in 2004 and 2005 but jurors deadlocked on his fate at both trials. He pleaded no contest to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter in December 2005 so he wouldn't have to risk a murder conviction at a third trial and was sentenced one month later to six years in state prison.
Jurors deadlocked on the fate of all three defendants at their first trial in 2004 and Merel and Magidson were convicted at the end of the second trial.
A fourth defendant, Jaron Nabors, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2003 in exchange for his testimony against the other three men and in 2006 he was sentenced to 11 years in state prison.
Cazares and Nabors have both been out of prison for many years.
Araujo was born as a male named Eddie but presented herself as a woman.
According to prosecutor Chris Lamiero, who handled both trials, the four men killed Araujo following a night of drinking and smoking marijuana when they discovered that the beautiful woman they'd been socializing with for several months actually was a biological male.
According to testimony in the two trials, Araujo had sex with all of the men except Cazares.
Klinge said Araujo's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, supports granting parole to Merel because she thinks he's always been remorseful about his involvement in Araujo's death but most of Araujo's other family members oppose granting Merel parole.
Magidson had a parole hearing at the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla on Wednesday but Klinge said that at the last minute Magidson stipulated that he's still unsuitable for parole at this time and he won't be eligible for parole again for three years.
Klinge said Magidson has had a poor prison record and has been cited for disciplinary violations numerous times.
Magidson was unapologetic and unremorseful when he and Merel were sentenced on Jan. 27, 2006, saying "This case was based entirely on lies by the witnesses and my co-defendants and encouraged by the prosecutor."
He said, "I'm here with my head held high" and claimed, "I didn't receive a fair trial."
After the hearing, Lamiero said, "Mr. Magidson didn't do himself any favors" with his comment and said "his words will come back to haunt him" when he faces a parole board.
However, Klinge said Magidson is now more remorseful.
At the sentencing hearing for Merel and Magidson, Araujo's aunt, Emma Rodrigues, said Araujo "used poor judgment" in partying with the four men over a period of several months but said Araujo "shouldn't have paid for that mistake with her life."
Rodrigues said that because Araujo was transgender, "She was rejected at school, at church and even by her own family."
Rodrigues said that one time Araujo opened a Bible and asked, "Where does God have a place for people like me?"
Klinge said Guerrero has been affected so much by Araujo's death that she never went back to the legal secretary position she held for 16 years and is now homeless.